Lesson 6: Freedom from Sin (6:1-23)

In chapter 5, Paul taught that we have peace with God through Christ because we have been justified – counted righteous in our union with Christ – through faith in him.  As a result, we can stand before him knowing that we stand in a loving relationship because of the work of the cross and the experience of the Holy Spirit.  And so we rejoice in the hope of the eternal life we will receive.  Although we were born spiritually dead, Christ has made us alive (“born again”) through the regenerating work of the Spirit.  The emphasis in chapter 5 is on the sovereignty of God’s grace to us and, therefore, the assurance we have in our salvation.  He alone can save us from our hopeless condition.  This is why we can “rejoice in the hope of the glory of God” (5:2).

We know what we were before our justification and what we will be in glory, but what about now?  How are we to live as Christians now between the time of our conversion–our spiritual birth–and the future time of our physical death or Christ’s return?  Do we go on living as we have always done?  Do we have any blessings in our future life now?  Or do we treat our conversion as an insurance policy guaranteed by God himself?  Paul has repeatedly dealt with these questions while preaching the gospel throughout his missionary journeys.  And so, he also anticipates, the people in the church in Rome would ask these same questions.  Two significant issues have repeatedly arisen due to Paul preaching the gospel.  Both problems have to do with the law.

First, Paul consistently taught that by obedience to the law, —“works of the law”—no one can be righteousness before God.  Rather, righteousness is a gift from God given to those who put their hope in Christ.  Some believers concluded from this, it did not matter what one does since God is love and full of grace, and he will always forgive us.  In other words, the more we sin, the more God’s grace is revealed, so it is better to sin more.  Such people are called antinominalists (against the law), and many are with us even in our churches today.  Paul deals with this misrepresentation of the gospel in chapter 6.

The second issue concerned the purpose of the Mosaic law. It is clear from Scripture that God gave the law and that it represents his holiness.  Therefore, some people cannot give up on the idea; they must contribute to their own righteousness through obedience to the law.  And again, from the history of the Christian church, we know this has been a continuing problem.  These people are legalists, and Paul will address their issue in chapter 7.  Both problems result from Paul’s teaching on justification by grace alone through faith alone.  So Paul’s concern in chapters 6 and 7 is not independent instruction on sanctification; instead, they result directly from the implication of the doctrine of justification.

Chapter 6 begins a more extensive section that includes chapters 7 and 8 concerning our ongoing life in Christ.  In each chapter, he starts with our release from the law by our inclusion into the saving death and resurrection of Christ (6:1-14; 7:1-6; 8:1-11); and only then to the result of our inclusion in our present life (6:15-23; 7:7-25; 8:12-39).  Each chapter ends with the grace and love of God we now experience in our union in Christ (6:23; 7:25; 8:39).

Union with Christ in death, resurrection and life (6:1-14)

Paul has just said the Mosaic law, rather than bringing righteousness, was given “to increase the trespass” and “where sin increased grace abounded all the more” (5:20). These two statements, which are foundational to the gospel, would have raised two questions from Paul’s readers.  First, if the law does not bring righteousness, but as sin increases, grace increases even more, shouldn’t we sin even more “that grace may abound” even more (v. 1)?  And second, since the law no longer applies, why not live as sinful a life as we please “because we are not under the law but under grace” (v. 15)?  Paul emphatically answers “no” to both these questions and then explains why.  We can place both these positions under “cheap grace.”

vv. 1-2

When Paul begins this section with “what shall we say then?” he asks how God’s gracious acceptance of sinners, without any work on their part but through faith in Christ, determines how we should now live.  Paul just finished describing God’s plan and assurance of salvation; despite the rebellion of all people beginning with Adam, God had sent his Son through whom we receive justification and life.  He states that Israel was also in rebellion even though it had the law. And the law, rather than bringing righteousness, increased transgression. This culminated in the ultimate rebellion of crucifying God’s own Son on the cross.  But grace abounded even more (5:20-21), and the cross resulted in God's justice and love to be sufficient for all the sins of the world.

However, because of Paul’s emphasis on grace and our inability to contribute to our own righteousness, some people hearing this gospel misunderstood what Paul was saying; they either thought they could live as before they became Christians, while others accused Paul of promoting sin.[1]  They reasoned that if grace abounds all the more, then Paul was teaching, the greater their sin, the greater God's grace. 

Paul again uses the diatribe style by asking their question, “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” Not surprisingly, he responds with great emotion to this reasoning with an emphatic, “by no means!”  And then immediately provides the key reason: because we have “died to sin.” And because we have died to sin, we can no longer “live in [sin]” (v. 2).  This is the Christian’s new relationship to sin after being born spiritually.

But what exactly does it mean that we have died to sin, particularly when it is still possible to sin?  Paul contrasts our death to sin and life in Christ to answer this question using the imagery of baptism and our union with Christ.  He ends by stating in verse 14, “sin will have no dominance over you.”  So, “died to sin” does not mean we are dead, but it means, sin no longer reigns over the Christian; that is, sin has lost its power over the believer.  Throughout this passage, Paul uses words like “dominion” and “reign” to show we have been rescued from the dominion and reign of darkness and sin and been transferred into the kingdom of light and grace.  “Died to sin” is in the past and refers specifically to Christ’s death and our relationship to his death (cf. vv. 3-4).  The punishment for sin is death and I deserved to die.  Christ, my Substitute, died for me. And so in union with Christ, I died with Christ (see verse 6).  “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who lives but Christ who lives in me. The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loves me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).

Paul is not saying, Christians do not sin but that we must not “continue” or “remain” (net) in sin.  This phrase pertains to Christians who live in sin and refuse to change their sinful habits.  Although we sin individually because of our union with Christ, the reign of grace gives us the power not to sin continually; that is, continue to live in it.  Deliverance from sin is not just forgiveness of sins and its penalty but also its power to overcome sin.  So, Paul urges us to be what we are, citizens of heaven and not of this world. Paul now describes all this in more detail in verses 3 through 13 and then sums it all up again in one profound declaration in verse 14.

United with Christ in his death and resurrection (vv. 3-11)

The question raised in verse 2 remains: how or in what way have we died to sin?  In these verses, verses 3 through 11, Paul gives us the answer; it is through our union with Christ. Our union with Christ brings us freedom from the dominance of sin’s power and frees us to live for God (v. 10).  Union with Christ is Paul's fundamental way of describing a Christian.  He does not call anyone a Christian but uses the phrase "in Christ" or, in this passage, even more directly "united with him."  It is unusual that he uses baptism to describe our union.  In the preceding passage (5:12-21), he has just explained how we were in Adam but now are in Christ.  We were named in Adam; that is, the name of Adam defines who we were and to whom we belonged.  When Christ came, he gave us a new name (Matthew 28:19).  We are no longer in Adam but in Christ.  So, baptism is a public naming ceremony, or better, a re-naming ceremony, where we set aside the name of Adam and take the name of Christ.  There are other naming ceremonies in human society, such as marriage or citizen ceremonies when one becomes a citizen of a new country.  Most importantly, parents name their newborn children, making them part of their family by name.  There are also many name changes in Scripture (Genesis 17:5, 15; 32:28; 2 Samuel 12:24-25; Mark 3:16; Acts 13:9).  Each has spiritual significance.  This is also true for Christians.  Jesus said to baptize “into the name of the Father and of the Son and the Holy Spirit.”  We take on the “name” of the Trinity in our baptism, thereby joining God’s family.[2]

vv. 3-4

Paul begins with “Do you not know, " referring to what he just said in verses 1 and 2. Anyone who does not know that a Christian no longer lives under the dominion of sin does not understand the meaning of “died to sin.” So he now explains further the basis or reason why we who have “died to sin” should no longer “live in it.”  There are two things that God alone has done that we can count on.  First, our union with Christ means that we have “died” with Christ; second, it also means that we are now “alive” in Christ.  Our old self (in Adam) has been crucified with him, and we now live (who we are in Christ) because Christ lives to glorify God (v. 10).

Paul begins by reminding his readers of the significance of being “baptized into Christ Jesus.”  To fully understand what baptism means for the Christian, we must first recognize that it points to Jesus Christ and our union in him.  Therefore, it is pri­marily a sign of what Christ has done for us.  We tend to focus on what baptism says to others about ourselves and our faith in Christ.  And so, we often relate baptism to our initial decision for Christ.  When we focus on ourselves, we lose the blessing bap­tism is meant to be.  Instead, Paul instructs us to focus on what baptism says about Christ and what he has done for us.[3]

The first thing Paul tells us is our baptism is in union with Christ and we have been “buried with him.” Baptism symbolizes that we have been “crucified with him” (v. 6).  His death becomes our death (Galatians 2:20).  Baptism is the appointed means of professing faith in him by publicly swearing allegiance to him in his death and resurrection.  Christ’s death on the cross becomes our death in our union with him.  And, if we have died with Christ, we are also “raised from the dead” so “we too might walk in newness of life.”  We share in Christ’s death so we might share in his life.  The main point Paul makes then is, we are freed from the reign of sin because of our union with Christ in his death and resurrection.  Since death releases one from all obligation and control, our death, in union with Christ, has freed us from sin’s power.  How can someone who swore allegiance to Christ continue to live in sin?  It simply is not possible.  Although Christ’s death was for our justification, our justification is the foundation of our sanctification; that is, we may “walk in newness of life.” 

Significantly, Paul uses baptism to describe our union with Christ.  Baptism in these two verses implies water baptism rather than baptism in the Spirit. Paul usually uses “to baptize” to mean water baptism (1 Corinthians 1:13-17; 12:13; 15:29; Galatians 3:27). As well, the command of Jesus (Matthew 28:19), the importance of baptism to the early church, and particularly the reference to “through baptism” (v. 4 nasb, niv, net) makes any other type of baptism unlikely.[4] However, we need to remember that for Paul, water baptism and baptism in the Spirit go together since both occur at conversion.[5] Paul himself, experienced water baptism immediately at his conversion (Acts 9:18). However, even more importantly, Paul’s emphasis and concern in this passage is not baptism but union with Christ.

Interpreters have several explanations of this close relationship of baptism to union with Christ.  Some view baptism as the only way we are joined to Christ.  However, given Paul’s emphasis on faith as the instrument by which we receive justification, it is not possible that he now adds baptism as a kind of work.  Others view baptism as a symbol or picture of what occurred at the moment of conversion.  In this case, going under the water symbolizes death to our old life and being raised out of the water symbolizes being raised to new life.  This is a profound image of our total identification with Christ in his atoning work for our sins on the cross and his resurrection which gives life.  But is that all it is?

Douglas Moo points out, “Paul, however, does not say that we experience a death or burial, or resurrection ‘like' Christ’s; rather, Paul claims that we died ‘with’ Christ (vv. 5, 6, 8), that we were ‘buried with him’ (v. 4), and that we will be raised with him (vv. 5, 8).”[6]  Paul does not say baptism is a symbol or picture. He does say, “we were buried with him through baptism into death.”  Baptism actually does something.  So, baptism can­not be simply a symbolic picture or illustration of the profound richness of our union with Christ.

But, if this is so, how do we avoid baptism from becoming the means by which we are saved?  The answer lies in the understanding of conversion as being a set of events including grace, new birth, faith, repentance, the gift (baptism) of the Holy Spirit and water baptism.  All these are part of our salvation.  So, water baptism is not an isolated event but part of a larger complex of events bringing us into union with Christ.[7]  The importance of baptism is that it points directly to a profound spiritual reality.  This spiritual reality is the transformation that takes place at con­version when we die to sin and live for God.  As James Dunn points out, “It is as real an event in our spiritual history and experience as our share in the future consummation will be.”[8]  Just as we were born physically in union with Adam, we are now born spiritually in union with Christ.  We now have a new name to whom we belong as an adopted child of God.

Paul also states, Christ was raised from the dead “by the glory of the Father.” God’s glory is his infinite worth and holiness revealed in this world.  Therefore, Christ’s death and his resurrection demonstrated God’s holiness, mercy, faithfulness, compassion, power, and love.

Paul does not compare Christ’s resurrection with our bodily resurrection, symbolized by being raised from the water at baptism.  As we will see in verse 5, our bodily resurrection occurs as a future event.  Here in verse 4, Christ’s resurrection is paralleled with our being able to “walk in newness of life.” This new spiritual life is only through our union with him; because Christ lives in us, we can live like him.  As part of our salvation, baptism is so significant that it affects every aspect of who we are.  In the next verse (v. 5), Paul explains how this happens.

v. 5 The meaning and result of our union with Christ

Paul now makes explicit the meaning of our union with Christ. He reiterates if we are “united with him,” we are also united with him in his death.  “United” is key.  Believers are united or in union or simply in him (8:1; John 15:4; Ephesians 1:3-4; Philippians 1:1; Colossians 1:2).  Here, our union with Christ looks forward to a time when we “shall certainly” also be resurrected bodily as he was.  Note as well, the significance of our death and future resurrection is not identical to Christ but is “like his.” Only Christ died as a sinless sacrifice for us, and only Christ’s resurrection defeated and destroyed death.

Although Paul normally sees our resurrection as occurring when Christ returns (Philippians 3:21; Colossians 3:4), he also understands that we already experience that future glory in our life on earth.  As he writes to the church in Colossae:

having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. (Colossians 2:12)

And as he said in verse 4, “we too might walk in the newness of life.”  This is the result of our union with Christ.  “Newness of life” also means we are “no longer enslaved to sin” (v. 6).  We have freedom from sin in our union with Christ, so we are not to “continue in sin” (v. 1).  Every aspect of our lives is affected.

The key that holds all this together is our union with Christ.  It is a tremendously important part of Paul’s teaching throughout his letters.  He uses the phrase, “in Christ,” at least seventy times.  This is how we must think of ourselves in our relationship with Christ.  Everything we have, we have because of this union.  As Paul wrote to the church in Corinth:

And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1:30-31)

So, in our union with Christ, we receive “wisdom” removing our blindness and ignorance of God and giving us true knowledge of God; we receive “righteousness,” replacing our guilt and condemnation with peace with God; we receive “sanctification,” that triumphs over our corruption and sin so we can walk in newness of life; and we receive “redemption” that transfers us from the realm of darkness and death into God’s realm of light and life.  We accomplish none of this on our own but only in our union with Christ, who has given us all these things by his grace.  On that great and final day, when we stand in reverent fear of God before his throne, he will pronounce us justified in Christ and there will be no condemnation because we are in Christ.  And so we will live for all eternity in Christ, honouring, glorifying and worshipping him in all wisdom and without any sin.  What a day to look forward to!

vv. 6-7 The purpose of our union with Christ: Crucifixion

In these verses, Paul highlights the purpose of our union with Christ.  In doing so, he points back to our union with Adam (See 5:12-21).  The reference to “old self,” or better “old man” (kjv), is our union with Adam which has now been “crucified with him [Christ].”

Our union with Christ means his crucifixion became our crucifixion – once and for all– and his resurrection became our new life.  Though we were spiritually dead in Adam, we are now born again into new spiritual life in Christ.  We were born children of wrath, but now we are re-born (born again) as children of life.  This is a complete and whole transformation.  It is not partial.  We are not still partially united with Adam and partially with Christ.  This is what Paul had also written to the Galatian church:

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)

Such a radical change must reveal itself in a new way of living.

Paul gives two purposes for our dying with Christ.  First, it is so “the body of sin be brought to nothing.”  The phrase, “body of sin,” refers to our sinful state (7:18; Colossians 2:11; 3:5).  The purpose of our crucifixion with Christ is not only that we are forgiven but that the power of sin is brought to nothing (5:21).  And second, we are no longer “enslaved by sin.”  That is, we no longer live in bondage to sin (6:1-2; 8:4; Galatians 5:16-25; Ephesians 4:22-24; Colossians 3:5-10; John 8:34; Hebrews 2:14-16).

Paul’s radical description of the crucifixion of the old man does not entirely agree with our experience as Christians.  Without doubt, we still sin.  In Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus, he writes, we are “to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires” (Ephesians 4:22; cf. Colossians 3:9-10).  Here the description is not so radical.  How are we to understand this?  Some interpreters say our crucifixion takes a long time to complete, and so it describes our entire earthly life as a Christian – each day we need to crucify the old man.  But Paul uses the past tense when he says, “our old self was crucified.”  It is also important to remember we cannot crucify ourselves, and so we cannot crucify our “old man.”  And thankfully, we are not asked to do so.  The “old man” has already been crucified with Christ on the cross.  What was crucified was all of us that existed before being born again.  We do not need to get rid of him, nor could we if we tried.  Christ has already put our union with Adam to death on our behalf.  Therefore, we are called to live who we already are in union with Christ.  We are not to continue in sin (v. 1) – to live as if we are still in Adam – but to live as we really are in Christ.

It is essential, therefore, to distinguish between “old man” which is dead and gone and “body of sin” which is our sinful human condition that is still subject to sin (8:23).  Our ability to sin (“flesh”) remains in our members (vv. 12-14).  This is why we still so easily sin.  Satan does not have power over us but he still can continue to deceive us (John 8:44; Revelation 12:9; 20:3, 8, 10).[9]  But, this does not change the fact, we are entirely a new creation.  This is the already and not-yet of our present salvation.  Our “old man” has already been crucified with Christ, but not yet has our “body of sin”–sinful state–been destroyed.  And our hope–our joyful assured expectation–is that one day we will also be rid of our present sinful human “flesh” and be resurrected into a glorious sinless body (See the Special Topic: Do Christians have two natures? in Lesson 7).

Paul, in verse 7, gives the reason why a believer cannot continue in sin.  It is because the believer “has died” (crucified) “with him [Christ]” (see v. 10; Galatians 2:20).  Such a person is “set free [justified] from [the bondage of] sin.”  It is because the believer is justified, declared (credited, counted, imputed) righteous in Christ. Therefore, he is able to live a holy life and is now able not to sin.  This is the foundation of the whole teaching on holiness (sanctification).  Although justification is separate from (progressive) sanctification, it is the basis of and foundation for why a Christian is able to live a holy life.[10]  However, justification is not the cause of sanctification; rather, through his Spirit, we grow in spiritual maturity.  This is because we are united with Christ by faith. 

Other religions state that we must be holy to be justified before God.  The gospel states the opposite; God accepts the ungodly and justifies them, so they become holy.  This is the most astonishing gracious act of our loving God.  So, a justified believer cannot and must not live in sin because he is dead to sin.  The phrase “set free [justified] from sin” means the believer is freed from the guilt and penalty of sin and the power or reign of sin.

Moreover, to be justified means we are counted as righteous.  This double grace is received through union with Christ by faith in Christ, apart from works.  As a result, we are able to live a life pleasing to God.  So, our sanctification or holiness is guaranteed by the death of Christ (Galatians 2:19-20; 6:14; Colossians 2; 3:3; 1 Peter 4:1).  Death to the “old man” is not something we do but what we are granted in our union with Christ (vv. 7, 10).

vv. 8-10 The purpose of our union with Christ: Resurrection

In the previous verses, vv. 6-7, the relationship between Christ’s death and the death of our old self is described.  Now, Paul describes our relationship to Christ’s resurrection.  In Christ’s death, our old self was crucified; we now live with him in Christ's resurrection.  Deliverance from the penalty and power of sin was the negative side of the cross; to live in Christ is the positive side.

Verse 8 states, “Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.”  Paul uses the future tense again when talking about our life with him.  And again, he certainly may be referring to our resurrected bodies.  But here, it is more likely he refers to our new spiritual born-again life on earth (14:23; John 5:24).  In this case, the future is a logical sequence.  We divide our earthly life into two halves: the life of our old self which died in Christ at conversion and our life in Christ that lives for God’s glory.  The difference is so significant that it can only be viewed as the death of one life and the beginning of new life.  As Paul writes to the Corinthians, Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17).  Of course, it is also possible that Paul means both a temporal and logical future.

Paul goes on in verse 9 to distinguish between the raising of the dead in the gospels and Christ’s resurrection.  Lazarus was raised from the dead only to die physically again (John 11:38-44).  However, Jesus went through death, conquering it, and was raised with an incorruptible body.  Christ “will never die again” and neither will we who are in union with him.  The phrase “death no longer has dominion over him” does not imply that death did have dominion over Christ at some point.  Jesus voluntarily laid down his life for our sakes, and so was the master of death, even on the cross.  Jesus, as the Son of God, was never subject to the power of death.  Yet before his resurrection, Jesus’ body was like ours.  This is explained further in the next verse.

Verse 10 contrasts the difference between Jesus’ “death” in his earthly body and his “life” in his eternal resurrected body (1 Peter 3:18).  The difference is profound.  His death was a single once for all event, but his life is present and eternal; his death was for sin, but his life seeks God’s glory (“the life he lives he lives to God”) (Hebrews 7:27).  In this context, the meaning of “[Christ] died to sin,” is that Christ died to the power of sin, which is death.  Of course, Christ died for our justification, but he also died to break the power of sin, which is death.  Jesus’ resurrected body is now eternal and is not subject to death.  And we too, who are in union with Christ, have died with Christ to the power of sin and are now able to live for God.

v. 11 The consequence of our union with Christ

This verse summarizes the consequence of our union with Christ.  If we have indeed been united with Christ in his death and resurrection, we have also died to sin and been given new life.  We, therefore, “must consider[11] ourselves “dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”  This ‘considering’ is not just an idea, concept, or doctrine.  The Greek word translated as “consider” is the same one Paul used when he said Abraham was “counted righteous.”[12] 

We do not just pretend our old self has died.  For, in fact, our old self has died –crucified with Christ–and Christ has paid for all the sin we have committed.  The basis for “consider” or “counted” is what God has first done for us.  Paul tells us we must remember this as a fact and not just pretend it is true.  This remembering means living and acting what is true.  The fact that we still sin does not change this reality.  We are to remember who we are.  And to remember not only the day of our conversion but also our baptism when we were given a concrete reality of that new life of union with him.  Living and maturing in Christ is to remember, recall, meditate, and ponder who we are in union with Christ.

In summary, these verses (vv. 1-11), Paul has explained the meaning of our union with Christ.  We have been crucified with Christ (v. 6), we have died with him (v. 8), we have been buried with him (v. 4), and we have been made alive with him (v. 8).  And so, since death has no longer dominion over him, it also has no dominion over us (vv. 9-10).  This has a direct consequence on how we now must live (v. 11).  Paul now explains further the application of our union with Christ in the following few verses.

Transferred from the dominion of Adam to the dominion of Christ (6:12-14)

vv. 12-13 The application of our union with Christ

If verse 11 summarizes the consequence of our union with Christ, verses 12-14 summarize the application of that union.  Paul gives us two negative commands and two positive commands.  And again, Paul then reminds us who we are in Christ.  So the reality of what God has done for us in Christ changes how we should live.  This is our response to what God has sovereignly done for us.

The first command (v. 12) is “let not sin therefore reign in your moral bodies.”  The reference to “reign” refers to the way a king rules or dominates his subjects.  Now sin is no longer our ruler; its power over us has been destroyed.  We are no longer in Adam but in Christ and so are now able, through the Spirit, not to practice sin.  Although we still sin on occasion, it should never be our master.  Paul is quite specific about what he means.  The second negative command (v. 13a) is, we are not to use our “mortal body” as “instruments for unrighteousness.”  This means our moral life but also our behaviour (James 3:1-12).  Positively (v. 13b), we are to present ourselves “to God as those who have been brought from death to life” and our “members to God as instruments of righteousness.”  This itself is an amazing responsibility.  Our members, our hands, feet, eyes, ears, and minds, are instruments of God for righteousness.

v. 14 Remember! You are “in Christ”

Paul ends this passage with another reminder of who we are in Christ.  Sin is no longer our master and ruler.  This is not an exhortation or command from Paul but a statement of fact. Simply put, sin no longer has “dominion over you” neither are we “under law.”[13] That old dispensation is gone.  We are now under the dispensation of grace in which Christ is the ruler (5:2, 21; John 1:17).  Although the law made good and holy demands on us to love God and our neighbour as ourselves, it did not change our hearts.  The result is, we continue to break God’s law by not honouring and glorifying him as we ought.  The law did not help us overcome sin. In fact, it increased sin (5:20).  The result was, before grace came, we were under the reign of sin. However, now that grace has come, although we may sin, we are not under the power of the law causing sin to increase. Instead, we are under grace.  This is what Paul meant when he wrote, “you are not under the law but under grace.”[14]  As well, through the justifying work of Christ and the sanctifying work of the Spirit, grace has given us the ability not to sin.  Therefore, in our union with Christ, we are able to honour him, glory him, and delight in him.

Do this and live the Law demands,

But gave me neither feet nor hands.

A better way God’s grace doth bring,

It bids me fly and gives me wings.

Summary of 6:1-14

We can now summarize Paul’s teaching in this passage as follows:

1.      Although Christ was sinless, he took upon himself our sin and “died to sin” on the cross.  This was a “once for all” event.  But he not only died, he also rose again, and “lives to God” (v. 10)

2.      We are in union with Christ, “united with him” (v. 5) and so his actions of dying and rising are applicable for us as well.  Just as Adam’s act of transgression was ap­plied to us, now in our union with Christ, his act of righteousness is applied to us.

3.      Therefore, in our union with Christ, we have also “died to sin” so we do not “continue in sin.” And in our union with Christ, we too, have been raised to new spiritual life so “we too might walk in newness of life.”

Freedom from slavery to sin, enslaved to God (6:15-23)

Paul has just dealt with the first reason not to be enslaved in sin (“are we to continue in sin that grace may abound” v. 1).  He now turns to the second reason why some people thought Paul was teaching, they could continue to sin.

Their reason is that because we are no longer under the law of Moses and have been given Christ’s perfect righteousness, it does not matter much what we do.[15]  The grace of God is so great, infinite, and wonderful, he will always forgive us.  The extreme position is that we demand his grace; we cheapen his grace by taking it for granted.  There is a story about Heinrich Heine, a famous nineteenth-century German poet who did not believe in Jesus as Lord or Saviour.  He was asked at his deathbed if he was concerned about meeting God if the gospel was true.  He was not concerned for if it was the case then: “Of course, God will forgive me; that’s his job.”  Often, we do not make such a rash statement, but it is close to our sentiment. The result is, we do not take our sin, even as Christians, very seriously. This is the issue Paul now addresses.

v. 15 freedom from sin does not mean freedom to sin

Paul begins this second question of how we should live as followers of Christ much the same way he began the first question.  In both cases, he asks: how shall we now live given we are justified by the grace of God through faith and not by anything we do (“What shall we say then?” and “What then?”).  He addresses the issue directly, which some Christians have asked or assumed: “Are we to sin because we are not under the law but under grace?”  Again, as in this first question, his answer is, “By no means!”  As in the first question, he now provides reasons (vv. 16-23) why continuing in sin is not an option for Christians, even though we are no longer under the law.    

v. 16 obedience to sin leads to death or obedience to righteousness

Paul again reminds them about what they already know.  He asks, “do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves you are slaves of the one whom you obey?”  The first readers in Rome would certainly have known this.  So Paul uses their everyday experience in the slave market to illustrate their new relationship with God.  It might seem a bit puzzling for anyone to “present” or “offer” (niv) themselves as slaves.  It appears this type of slavery is voluntary.  The original Greek word means to put oneself in the power of another.  A slave has no will of his own but must obey the will of his master.  We usually think of slavery in Roman times as the result of war or being purchased in the Roman slave markets. However, people voluntarily offered themselves as slaves if they were too poor to feed, house and clothe themselves.  Paul’s point is that the master would accept their offer if this happened.  And once accepted, all freedom would be lost.  One could not take back their offer.  Paul is using this familiar harsh reality to illustrate spiritual slavery.  We have two choices: we either voluntarily surrender our lives to obedience to “sin which leads to death,”  or we surrender our lives to “obedience which leads to righteousness.”  Jesus himself stated:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.” (John 8:34)

And again, in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus commenting on slavery says:

“No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. (Matthew 6:24)

Then when Paul says the alternative is “the one whom you obey … obedience” what does he mean? We would have expected Paul to say, that the alternative to obeying sin is obeying God.  And we would have expected the alternative of “death” to be ‘life’ rather than “righteousness.”  As Stott points out, the “idea of ‘obedient to obedience’ is a dramatic way of emphasizing obedience is the very essence of slavery and ‘righteousness,’ in the sense justification is almost a synonym of life (cf. 5:18).”[16]  In this context, “death” means spiritual and eternal death.  Therefore, Paul illustrates that self-surrender results in slavery and slavery demands complete obedience.  Our loyalty is either to sin or God – we cannot have two masters.  Once we have chosen our master, we have lost our freedom to choose another (part-time) master.  Loyalty is either to “sin,” which leads to “death,” or “obedience” which leads to “righteousness,” which is the basis of eternal life.  Once again, this is the all-or-nothing nature of conversion.  We are never partially converted. 

One might ask: Are we not just trading one slavery for another? How does that help?  The reason is, we were created to be the image of God.  Therefore, the more we are in God's will, the more human we become.  And the more human we become, the more freedom we have.  We are only truly free when we are in God’s will because that is what we were created for.  Jesus himself said, “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36).  Finally, when Paul states obedience “leads to righteousness,” he does not mean we become righteous by our good works.  Here righteousness means holiness.  In other words, obedience leads to our sanctification (see the last phrase of verse 19); that is, maturing by conforming to the image of God (2 Corinthians 3:18).

vv. 17-18 freedom from sin, and slaves to righteousness

Paul now continues the illustration of slavery to show God has transferred us from the realm of slavery to sin and death to the realm of slavery to righteousness and life.  We cannot be in both realms at the same time. This transfer is our conversion from obedience to sin to obedience to righteousness.  Paul describes this transfer in four steps.  But he begins with “thanks be to God.”  This can only mean God accomplishes the transfer from one realm to another on our behalf.  Being spiritually dead, we cannot transfer ourselves from one realm to another.  This is entirely a work of God.  And so, our response (as was Paul’s) is to continually thank God for rescuing and freeing us from the realm of sin and death. The four aspects of conversion are:

1.      you who were once slaves of sin” This is the condition of every person born into this world (5:12ff).  We are born spiritually dead in Adam, making it impossible not to sin.  We are born into the realm of sin and death and cannot escape through our own ability.

2.       “have become obedient from the heart” This is conversion itself.  It may not be the normal way we describe conversion, but Paul addresses how one should live as a Christian.  His answer is to live in obedience “to the standard of teaching to which you were committed.”  Again, this seems unusual.  We would have expected to be obedient to Christ or to live a life for which Jesus is our primary example.  Instead, Paul speaks of “teaching,” which can only mean his teaching and the teaching of the apostles, which was first received through the unique inspiration of God. This would include the gospel and ethical teaching on how to live the gospel.  The word translated as “committed” or “delivered” (kjv) – in fact, the entire expression – is extraordinary.  It means God, in his grace and mercy, is the subject of the teaching.  The acceptance of the gospel was given over to us by God to instruct us in it and to live it. There is a sense that faith itself is a gift of God.[17]

3.      having been set free from sin” This phrase means we have been rescued from the realm of sin and death.  Once, we were helplessly in its dominion and power. But now we are set free.  This does not mean we never sin, but it does mean sin no longer reigns in us (“Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body” 6:12).

4.      have become slaves of righteousness” We have not only been rescued and freed from the realm of sin and death, but we have been transferred into the realm of righteousness and life.  Sin has lost its power, and we are now able not to sin.  This transfer is not simply an idea or illustration, or a metaphor.  It is an actual event.  This transfer has also given us new life.  We are born once more but spiritually into a life of praise and glory to God.  No wonder Paul begins these verses with the doxology, “thanks be to God!”

vv. 19-22 Two kinds of slavery     

v. 19

Surprisingly, Paul begins this verse with a kind of apology for speaking about the divine mystery of conversion using such a human illustration as slavery (“I am speaking in human terms”).  Slavery is a good metaphor for our condition while in the realm of sin and death, but it does not seem like an entirely appropriate metaphor for our new life in the realm of righteousness and life.  His explanation for using the slavery metaphor for both realms is due to their (and our) “natural limitations.” The word “limitation” can also be viewed as “weakness” (nasb, net), meaning that the Roman church (and us) are not entirely aware of their (our) new condition in union with Christ.  And as a result, they are susceptible to temptation.  Because of this weakness, Paul does not abandon the slavery metaphor but contrasts the result of each form of slavery.  If they are “slaves to sin and lawlessness,” the result is “more lawlessness.”  But if they are “slaves of righteousness,” the result is “sanctification.” Either way, as slaves we must obey.  One obedience leads to more and more deterioration not just in morals but, more importantly, in a hardening of the heart and greater rebellion against the things of God.  The other obedience leads to less and less sin, but more importantly, in a softening of the heart towards God; to become more Christlike in our love for and our praise and honour of God.

The phrase “leading to sanctification” means sanctification is both a free gift from God and a command to obey. The New Testament uses the term “sanctification” in two ways.  It can refer to what we receive when we are born again.  This is called positional sanctification.  It is a gift of God given at salvation along with justification through faith in Christ (Acts 26:18; 1 Corinthians 1:2; 6:11; Ephesians 5:26–27; 1 Thessalonians 5:23; 2 Thessalonians 2:13; Hebrews 10:10; 13:12; 1 Peter 1:2).  As well, there is progressive sanctification which is also the work of God through the Holy Spirit together with the will and desire of the believer.  Progressive sanctification is how the believer’s life is transformed into the image of Christ (2 Corinthians 7:1; 1 Thessalonians 4:3, 7; Hebrews 12:10, 14).[18]  It is because of our positional sanctification in Christ that we can “walk in newness of life” (v. 4), which is our progressive sanctification.  This later meaning (progressive sanctification) is implied here.

vv. 20-22 The fruit (result) of two kinds of obedience

In these verses, Paul again contrasts what they “were” to what they are “now.”  They “were slaves of sin,” but the product of such sin was “things of which you are now ashamed.”  And in the end, these “things is death.”  In contrast, Paul says, “but now” (see 3:21).  There, he contrasted the time before the coming of Christ and the cross to the time of justification that came because of the cross.  This was the great divide in salvation history: Before Christ (BC) and after Christ (AD).  Paul now applies this same metaphor to individual salvation.  Before, we were “slaves to sin,” “but now,” “you have become slaves to God.”

It is worth looking at some of Paul's phrases in these verses more carefully.  What did he mean when he says, those who live in the realm of sin are “free in regard to righteousness”?  This almost seems like a positive statement.  Paul also adds to his illustration of slavery by introducing an additional metaphor of “fruit” or the result of the two kinds of slavery in each realm.  To produce fruit means to have a benefit or profit.  We will look at each of these in turn. 

First, “free in regard to righteousness” means free from the control of righteousness.[19]  Each realm has its own demands of slavery.  Those who are in the realm of sin, are free from the demands of the realm of righteousness since their master is not righteousness but sin.          The “fruit” of obedience in the realm of sin leads to death (v. 21).  So when Paul asks, “what fruit [benefit or profit] were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed?” (v. 21) The answer is “none” for the product is “death.”

Second, Paul said in verse 18, we are “slaves to right­eousness leading to sanctification.”  So, the fruit of obedience to righteousness is sanctification.  And, the “end” of “sancti­fication” is “eternal life.” The expression “the end” implies a journey reaching its goal.  Sanctification is, then, maturing and progressing in our relationship with Christ, growing in holiness, and setting the believer apart from the unbeliever.[20]

v. 23 The wages of sin compared to the free gift of God

Paul brings both arguments for continuing in sin to a conclusion.  Throughout the passage, he describes two slave masters: sin and righteousness.  Those in Adam are slaves in the realm of sin; while those in Christ are slaves in the realm of righteousness.  But now, in conclusion, Paul does not hold back.  The “wages of sin is death” meaning a slave to sin receives what is deserved; sin deserves death. Wages are earned (changing the metaphor slightly).  The punishment of death is the reasonable and just payment for sin (James 1:15). A labourer deserves the wages he earned, so God would be unjust not to provide them.  Those who expect forgiveness without atonement believe one of two things: either they do not think their sin deserves death, or they expect God to be unjust.  The “death” Paul mentions in this verse is not just physical death but eternal (second) death (Revelation 21:8). 

But someone might ask, “why does sin deserve death?” The answer is because of the holiness of God.  God demands holiness – perfect heartfelt obedience to his law – from his creatures.  He must punish sin, which is rebellion against being in his image, with death.  God would not be righteous if he did not.  This was Martin Luther’s great struggle leading to the Protestant Reformation.  How could he, as a sinful human being, ever become sufficiently righteous to satisfy a righteous God?  He found his answer in the heart of the gospel: we can only be righteous by receiving (clothing ourselves) with the righteousness of Christ through union with him. This righteousness was made available to us only through death, not our death, but the death of the Son of Man and Son of God.  We participate in his death when we are united with him (v. 5).  This gift of Christ’s righteousness, permitting us to live eternally in the presence of God, is the wondrous “free gift of God.”

The contrast to payment is the “free gift of God.”  The contrast could not be starker.  Wages are for services rendered; a free gift is an undeserved grace (gift) resulting in “eternal life.”  And this free gift, which is the righteousness of Christ, is given to all who put their hope, trust and obedience in “Christ Jesus our Lord.” The reference to “Lord” is important.  Christ Jesus is not just our Saviour; he is also our Lord.  And this means he is our Master and King.  We owe all our devotion, loyalty, and faithful obedience to him.  Although salvation begins with judicial justification and receiving Christ’s righteousness, it does not end there.  If we truly have been born again into a new life in union with Christ, and if we truly have been transferred from the realm of sin and death to the realm of righteousness and life, then we have a new Lord whom we are to obey as “slaves to God.”

Questions for Reflection

Study it

1.     [v. 1] What arguments were some Christians making that it was not just okay but beneficial to sin? What does the phrase “continue in sin” mean?

2.     [v. 2] What is the reason Paul gives for a Christian not to continue living in sin? Is this a surprise to you? What would you have expected Paul’s reason would be? What does “died to sin” mean?

3.     [vv. 3-4] What does “baptized into his [Christ’s] death” mean? What was the purpose of our being baptized into Christ Jesus? Does Paul describe baptism as a symbolic event, a means of grace or something else?

4.     [v. 5] What is the significance and meaning of being “united with him [Christ]”? Why is this such an important doctrine for Paul? What is the result of this union?

5.     [vv. 6-7] What does Paul mean by “old self” or “old man”?  What does the phrase “body of sin” mean? What is the significance of the “old man” having already been crucified? Do you agree or disagree with the understanding given in the notes?

6.     [vv. 8-10] How do you understand the statement, because “we have died with Christ,” “we will also live with him”?

7.     [vv. 6-10] What are the purposes of our union with Christ?

8.     [v. 11] What is the consequence of our union with Christ?

9.     [vv. 12-14] What is the application of our union with Christ?

10.   [v. 14] How do you understand the statement, “you are not under the law”?

11.  [v. 15] Why was Paul criticized for teaching that we are no longer under the law?

12.  [vv. 17-18] How does Paul use the metaphor of slavery to prove we are still obligated not to sin even though we are not under the law?

13.  [vv. 19, 22] What does “sanctification” mean?

14.  [vv. 18, 20] What does Paul mean when he says slaves of righteousness are free, but then he also says slaves of sin are free?

15.  [vv. 21-23] What is the “fruit” of the realm of righteousness, and how does one produce it?  What is the “wages” of sin, and how does one earn it? What is the “end” of each of these ‘products’?

Live it

1.     What does “died to sin” mean to you personally? What reason would you give if someone was to ask you for the reason Christians should not sin?

2.     Is baptism merely symbolic, or is it a spiritual event?  If you were baptized, what was your experience? What was the significance of baptism to you?  Was it anything similar to what Paul mentions in vv. 3-4?

3.     What does “walk in newness of life” mean to you?  Is this something you have experienced?

4.     How do you view the Christian life?  Is it one of constantly fighting to “crucify” your old self? Do verses 6 and 7 shed any light on your struggle with sin? Do they encourage you?

5.     What does “freedom” in Christ mean to you?

6.     What is the secret of holy living (being sanctified) (hint: v. 13, 19, 22)?

7.     We are mostly taught that God is our Father and Christ is our friend or brother. But in this passage, we are also taught that we are “slaves of God.” What do you think or feel about that statement?  How might it affect your prayers?


[1] It is worth noting that this was also the argument against Martin Luther and other reformers.

[2] This is the reason, in some Christian traditions, the person baptized is given a new name by which they are now called.

[3] Ferguson, 87.

[4] Dunn, Baptism in the Holy Spirit, 140.

[5] Schreiner, Romans, 307.

[6] Moo, Encounter, 96.

[7] Some interpreters have attempted to define a strict chronological order to all the events of salvation but it may be best to understand them as a collective whole.  Of course, baptism does come in time after regeneration and justification (born again), and so can be viewed as evidence of our adoption.

[8] Dunn, Baptism in the Holy Spirit, 143.

[9] Osborne, 168.

[10] Piper, 78.

[11] It is worth noting, this is the first time in the letter Paul is commanding the Roman Christians. After this point in the letter, he gives many exhortations (vv. 12, 13, etc.). His emphasis moves from doctrine to living the Christian life.  However, what is important to remember is, doctrine always must come first. It is foundational.  And the primary doctrine that Paul is concerned about is that we are justified in our union with Christ. This is the basis on which we can stand before the judgment seat of God. It is what God had first done for us.  Without first getting this doctrine of union with Christ clear in our hearts and minds with all its implications, our Christian life will not have the proper direction.

[12] Paul used the same Greek word fourteen times already (eleven in chapter 4).

[13] Not all commentators understand “law” to refer the Mosaic law. Some understand it to refer to the general will of God.  However, given Paul’s interaction with Jews and Gentiles, it is more likely to refer to the Mosaic law.

[14] Syntactically, it is possible to understand the statement, the believer is “not under the law” to mean, the law has no authority any longer.  However, given all Paul states concerning God’s law in 3:31; 7:12, 14a; 8:4; 13:8-10, it is difficult to comprehend that Paul would undermine the authority of the law.  It is much more likely, Paul is speaking about the condemnation of the law on law-breakers since he contrasts the law with grace. See also 8:1.

[15] Although this sounds somewhat strange to us, it is much the same as what occurs in society and sadly in some churches.  Today many things that God states are sin, are no longer considered to be sin.  Or, we diminish the severity of sin to the point that we ignore its relevance.  There is little difference between these contemporary attitudes to the gospel than those that Paul dealt with.

[16] Stott, 183.

[17] Hodge, 191.

[18] Utley, Volume 5, Romans 6:19.

[19] Mounce, 158.

[20] Thielman, 325.